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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

Elora native Fred Jacob’s second book was published posthumously

Almost a decade ago this column took a look at a novel written in the 1920s by an old Elora boy, Fred Jacob.

He was the son of Elora lawyer John Jacob and a nephew of Judge George Drew, grandfather of the future premier of Ontario.

Fred, born in 1882, completed most of his education in Elora, but the family moved to Toronto when he was 15. As a child he was sickly, suffering from rheumatic fever, but as an adult he embarked on a career as a sports writer with the Toronto Mail and Empire.

By then he had cultivated a special interest in lacrosse, no doubt after seeing the game played in Elora. He served for 16 years as the president of one of the Toronto clubs.

In addition to his sports stories, Jacob reviewed plays and theatrical productions, and penned book reviews. He dabbled in writing poetry, and in the 1920s he began to write fiction, using his early years in Elora as the basis.

A description of his first book, Day Before Yesterday, appeared in this column back in 2005. That book related incidents and described houses and people in the Elora of the 1880s.

When it was published that book was universally panned in Elora. Most of the characters in it were easily identifiable to Elora old timers, most in an uncomplimentary light, and the village itself did not come across as an admirable place.

Elora historian John Connon loathed the book, and the Elora Express virtually ignored it. Fergus editor Hugh Templin was more even-handed in his review, but he later admitted that he hated the story.

Still, a number of local households purchased copies of the book, and more than a few still have copies. Local libraries did a good business loaning out their copies to those who refused to add to the coins in Jacob’s pocket.

Jacob went so far as to answer Templin’s review in a letter that appeared in the Fergus News Record. He claimed that he was writing about the generic qualities of late 19th century small town Ontario, and that it was a mistake to try to identify particular people and buildings in the novel.

Instead, he claimed, he was exploring class distinctions and the status of individual people in small town society that was in a period of economic stagnation.

Much less well known is that Jacob intended to pen a series of four novels on Elora. Day Before Yesterday was to be the first and earliest of the set which would end with the 1920s and contemporary Elora. He wrote the bulk of the second book in the series, Pee Vee, but died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1928 before he could send a finished manuscript to the publisher.

Jacob’s publisher, MacMillan and Company, issued the book in the last weeks of 1929. In reviewing the book, Hugh Templin noted that there was a major shift in the tone of the book from the earlier one, and that it seemed much less easy to identify particular people in it.

Pee Vee is set in the early years of the 20th century. In Day Before Yesterday Jacob used the names of actual Elora residents of the 1880s, but assigned them to people seemingly randomly. For instance, the judge in the story, obviously based on Jacob’s uncle George Drew, is named Newman, who in real life was an Elora banker.

All the characters who appeared in Day Before Yesterday, save one, a minister, are absent in Pee Vee. This time the town is named Petersville, but the geographic description bears a strong resemblance to Elora.

He notes that the dreams of the early residents to build a town of importance and significance came to naught, and that the river, once viewed as a major source of power for industry, had become capricious with alternate floods and droughts.

Though it is much more difficult to try to associate characters in Pee Vee with real people than in the earlier book, there are several incidents in it that actually occurred. One was the rescue of a boy who had been swept over the falls in the Grand River during a spring flood. Jacob though, exercised his literary licence, and many of the details of this incident do not correspond to the real story.

The plot of the book is the story of three friends who grew up in Petersville, but went to Toronto when they finished their schooling. Two of the boys enrol in the University of Toronto. The third, Pee Vee, the nickname of P.V. Macready, embarks on a career in journalism. The latter may be viewed as a thinly disguised depiction of the author himself, and is certainly a reflection of Jacob’s own experiences.

Pee Vee, like Jacob, secured a job at the Mail and Empire by winning a poetry contest sponsored by the paper. In his review, Templin was particularly delighted by Jacob’s depiction of the social milieu surrounding the University of Toronto.

He had experienced the same thing as an undergraduate there, and found the book particularly devastating in its satire of some of the professors and the women who cultivate friendships around the university to enhance their own social status.

Jacob also offers very accurate descriptions of a hockey game at the old Mutual Street Arena, which was once the venue for both amateur and professional hockey games. Jacob was quite familiar with both the arena and those who hung around the place in his work as a sports reporter.

Petersville was situated by Jacob in the fictional county of Marlborough, an obvious substitution for Wellington. But the other towns in the fictional county do not correspond well with Wellington.

A town named Potter may be viewed as Fergus, but the connection is tenuous at best. The county town, Milltown, bears only a slight resemblance to Guelph. In his review, Templin believed that Milltown was a generic depiction of an Ontario county town, and not a particular one.

It is obvious that Fred Jacob concluded that making a novel too close to reality was dangerous. Any message he sought to portray was overlooked in the game readers played of trying to match the fictitious characters with real people, and trying to identify particular landmarks.

Jacob himself, in speaking of his first book, stressed that he was writing fiction, and that characters, incidents and physical localities should not be identified with reality.

Templin found the end of the book less than satisfying, and believed that it was written by someone else after Jacob’s death. Nevertheless, he lamented that Jacob did not live long enough to finish his projected four-book series.

Despite his rheumatic fever, Fred Jacob had turned into something of a workaholic. Often he worked 12 and 14 hour days at the paper before sitting down with his fiction. He eschewed completely the company of women, and had no intention of marrying.

Nevertheless, he was a gregarious man, attending many social functions, and frequently hanging out with a group of male friends from journalistic and sports circles.

He suddenly collapsed at one such social function on July 3, 1928 of a massive heart attack. He was only 46 years old. Had he lived he might have become one of the notable figures in Canadian journalistic and literary circles.

The Wellington County library system does not have copies of either of Jacob’s tomes, but there are copies at the Wellington County Museum and Archives. Interested readers can have a look at them there.


Vol 47 Issue 27


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Wellington North Guide 2018-2019


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